The emerging art style in pop culture is called steampunk. It combines three gothic art fetishes in one universe — Victorian England; the Industrial Revolution; and doomsday sci-fi.
Such retro-futurism has existed in various forms for decades in the tales of H.G. Wells, and in such gray-steel films as “Dark City” (awesome) and “Sucker Punch” (awful).
Now, the 30-hour steampunk game “Dishonored” features people wearing frilly Victorian shirts to fancy parties — but they are saddled with a rat plague during a war waged by men in mechanized armor.
And the steampunk hero can teleport and do other sci-fi magic — even though his era’s main energy source is measly old whale oil.
Plot: I portray the hero guard who protects an empress. She gets killed. I stand falsely accused. So I fight scumbags to clear my name while saving the gilded empire from squeaky rats.
I can play this action-adventure one of three ways — as a shooter/sword swinger where I slay everyone; or as a stealth game where I sneak past henchmen without murdering them; or as a combination of both.
That game play reminds me of the assassin series “Hitman” (which I love), but with these steampunk visuals and supernatural powers (teleporting, pausing time, and spirit-possessing humans).
“Dishonored” is so good, because its priorities are correct. Let’s break them down by importance.
1. The first-person game play is fluid, intuitive and fun.
2. As the game progresses, I earn new superpowers to keep me interested in fighting and sneaking around, which gets harder but not imposingly difficult.
3. Missions are interesting, and characters talk a lot. On the other hand, I wish my own character talked. It’s weird he doesn’t.
4. I found no software bugs or frustrating quitting moments.
5. Good maps. That is, good environments. There’s a potential downside in that I must double-back to locations, but it’s OK, because doubling-back is quick, and not the long slog we find in other games.
6. The world of “Dishonored” feels like a creepy vacation to a weird place, and that leads to cool exploration, since steampunk visuals are still a fresh trend in games.
One quibble: Despite the steampunk originality, the graphics look low-fi. Faces and environments do not appear as finely detailed as most epics. Another quibble: I don’t love the layout of the action buttons.
But that’s fine, because the narrative structure and game fluidity are so good, I forgot about these quirks fast.
This is a moral game. It judges us. I played “Dishonored” as a stealth quest, trying not to kill henchmen if I could avoid it. I received a happy ending. If I had killed everyone, the game would have given me a gloomier finale.
But that’s me. I like to pretend I’m a benevolent guy when I’m defeating malevolent people, because I have the same motto as Speed Racer: You have to change the game. You can’t let the game change you.
“Dishonored” by Bethesda retails for $60 for Xbox 360, PS 3 and PC — Plays very fun. Looks good. Challenging. Rated “M” for blood, gore, sexual themes and strong language. Four out of four stars.
Doug Elfman is an award-winning entertainment columnist who lives in Las Vegas. He blogs at http://www.lvrj.com/columnists/Doug_Elfman.html. Twitter at VegasAnonymous.